Monday, 8 February 2016

What lies beneath

'Fantastic grow the evening gowns' wrote Auden in The Fall of Rome, couture standing for a more general decadence at the end of empire. The line came to mind as I leafed through Shaping the Body: An intimate history of the mechanics of underwear. Don't snigger at the back - this is a high-minded academic tome from a very respectable publisher.

Is clothing, as Auden suggests, really an economic bellwether? Do hemlines actually rise and fall in line with the markets, as is commonly believed? It's a theory that doesn't stand up to close inspection but reflects a popular idea that industrial societies are fully integrated, that capitalism expresses itself through consumer taste and taste is best reflected (or determined) by the way we dress.

Those of us who share Dorothy Parker's belief that brevity is the soul of lingerie may be disappointed by Shaping the Body as the book is less about revelation than insinuation; not what is revealed but what is implied. What's more the human form is largely absent in the many illustrations of uninhabited underwear - museum exhibits shorn of all allure.

Many of the items under consideration are situated at a point where art and science meet. Howard Hughes famously designed a cantilever bra to enhance Jane Russell's atomic décolletage and there's a scene in Hitchcock's Vertigo in which Barbara Bel Geddes (playing Midge, a lingerie designer) explains the process to Jimmy Stewart (her boyfriend, a troubled ex-cop). He is courteously baffled, rather than mildly aroused.

Scottie: What's this doohickey?
Midge: It's a brassiere! You know about those things, you're a big boy now.
Scottie: I've never run across one like that.
Midge: It's brand new. Revolutionary up-lift: No shoulder straps, no back straps, but it does everything a brassiere should do. Works on the principle of the cantilevered bridge.
Scottie: It does?
Midge: An aircraft engineer down the peninsula designed it; he worked it out in his spare time.
Scottie: Kind of a hobby, a do-it-yourself kind of thing!

Such craftily-engineered devices - panniers, crinolines, stomachers, bustles, body shapers and push-up bras, whalebone, hoop skirts, lacing, chains, zippers, clasps and straining elasticised fabrics - have a single purpose: the creation of a silhouette that is likely to attract a sexual partner. That allure should be a cultural rather than natural process goes without saying - breasts are natural, cleavage cultural. Today Spanx can render the dumpy svelte, can streamline the male or female form into something approximating the ideal. 

Men are part of this process: jackets emphasise (or simulate) broad shoulders, Cuban heels add an inch or so to shortarse filmstars, the codpiece swells the crotch and the necktie, pointing unambiguously downwards to where the codpiece once was, is nothing more than a directional prompt, an arrow. (When, incidentally, will a male M.P. of any political party have the confidence to enter the House of Commons is an iconoclastic open-neck shirt? He'd get my vote). Male dress is about potency, which is a form of allure. Female dress is about allure, which is a form of potency. The lineaments of gratified desire are left on the bedroom carpet, on the bedside table.

Of particular concern in this enjoyably erudite volume are constructions that constrict, that pummel and pleat the flesh into ample simulacra of promise. That such accoutrements, coupled with high heels, make it well-nigh impossible for the wearer to walk suggests that said wearer elects to be objectified - a case of 'take me I'm yours'. This, of course, is a form of empowerment, or so we may choose to believe.
    
The editor is curator of pre-19th-century fashion and textile collections at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris, but the volume includes work by such illustrious contemporaries as Thierry Mugler, Jean Paul Gaultier, Rei Kawakubo, Christian Lacroix and Vivienne Westwood. Shaping the Body: An intimate history of the mechanics of underwear is published by Yale University Press.

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